Tampa City Council removes voicemail option for public hearings, a return to pre-pandemic protocol

The move will be discussed again at Council’s Dec. 3 meeting.

click to enlarge Tampa City Council removes voicemail option for public hearings, a return to pre-pandemic protocol
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As of the Tampa City Council’s next meeting tomorrow, Dec. 3, community members will no longer have the option to submit a voicemail to be read live during council meetings. Police reform activists in Tampa who initially discovered this change at the beginning of the week took to social media on Monday to question City Council members about the issue.

“[What’s] the reason why the voicemail option for city council public comment was taken away?” community activist Shiv Shukla asked on Monday, directly addressing City Council Chairman Guido Maniscalco and councilman Luis Viera, “not everyone can attend live/online at 9am on a Thursday…”

The confusion about the removal of the voicemail option appears to be due to a miscommunication (or lack of communication) between community members and the City Council.

As confirmed by City Councilman Luis Viera on Wednesday, this removal of the voicemail option for public comment is the result of a motion initiated by Viera at the council’s last meeting on Nov. 19.

“We can have the mechanism for people to give voicemail with the expectation that council members will on their own time listen to it,” Viera said during the Nov. 19 meeting. “But just giving, I think at this point—now that we're becoming more live—folks the opportunity to just, you know, send a voicemail I think could overburden the time of council prospectively, if abused.”

City Council meetings have extended well into the afternoon in recent months, in part due to the number of community members who have provided comments for public hearing regarding the Tampa Police Department and police reform. As it stands, City Council meetings are still happening at the Tampa Convention Center—instead of City Hall—to allow for social distancing between councilmen and any constituents who choose to attend in person.

In a text message to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay on Wednesday, Viera explained that the voicemail option actually came as the result of an executive order by Gov. DeSantis earlier this year, which had allowed for the option of virtual city council meetings.

“This particular form of communication was meant to be used for virtual meetings, not in-person meetings,” said Viera. “Once the Governor’s order expired, we returned to our original policy on voice mails and live City Council meetings, as this was never contemplated to be permanent and leads to more tasks for our clerk, whose duties have grown significantly in this pandemic.”

Councilmember Orlando Gudes seconded Viera’s motion last month to remove the voicemail option for notice requirements, which was carried by the Council with Councilman Charlie Miranda absent.

Community members have several methods for submitting public comment for the official record: in-person comments at the Tampa Convention Center, speaking remotely by phone or video call, submitting a comment online, by email, and by traditional mail delivery. “The only change is that voicemails will no longer be played live,” said Viera.

Community members who have been actively involved in local police reform efforts, however, assert that removing this method for having their voices heard creates unnecessary inconvenience, and creates a barrier for working individuals.

“Tampa city council’s attempt to remove the voicemail option for public comments completely removes all transparency and silences voices within our community – especially low income, marginalized people,” Sam Shepard told CL in an email, adding that she is against the idea that the police can be reformed. Shepard believes that ending the police, abolition, is the only way to end police violence.

“Sending a written email is a public comment option, but these emails are not even read at council meetings. Further, even if they were, people should be able to use their own voices when speaking on issues that impact their lives,” Shepard added.

Although Viera shared no ulterior motive for choosing this time to revert to pre-pandemic methods for public hearing options—now that in-person meetings have resumed—police reform activists are skeptical of the timing. This Thursday’s meeting agenda features two items of interest to local activists, both of which concern the Tampa Police Department’s budget.

One resolution on the agenda calls for the reallocation of $54,307 from the city’s General Fund to the Tampa Police Department for the purchase of police shields and vests, in order to remain compliant with Regional Domestic Security Task Force Standard Operating Guidelines. The other item is a resolution to approve the purchase of three Ford Hybrid Utility Vehicles—totalling $112,656—for TPD under a Florida Sheriff’s contract with Duval Ford LLC, a dealership based in Jacksonville.

“As a Councilman who has held almost 40 town hall and community meetings in the last four  years, I know the value of speaking to all of the public and my constituents,” Viera added in his text message, regarding his motion to remove voicemails from public hearings. “I always remain open for meetings and engagement, as do all of my colleagues.”

This motion by Viera and Gudes will be discussed again this Thursday, Dec. 3 during the city council’s next regular meeting with City Council attorney Martin Shelby present.

UPDATED: 12/3/20 11 a.m. Updated to clarify Sam Shephard's abolitionist view on police.

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